This Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment concert, featuring three works composed in 1880, was a clever piece of programming, even if it included a bleeding chunk from a larger symphonic work which deserves to be heard in its entirety rather than being offered as an appetiser. In that year, Vienna was a city seething with political, social and cultural uncertainties, gripped by a great aesthetic divide between Bruckner and Brahms and their various acolytes. Music – the language of harmony – had become a theatre of war.

Sir Simon Rattle © Johann Sebastian Hanel
Sir Simon Rattle
© Johann Sebastian Hanel
We started with the traditionalist Brahms and his Tragic Overture. With steel-edged woodwind and brass, this was initially an urgent, rhythmically taut performance, given with careful gradations in dynamics, though Sir Simon Rattle and his players yielded a little too far in the quieter central interlude, allowing the introspection to suggest grief rather than tragedy.

Step forward a representative of the avant-garde and Bruckner’s favourite pupil, one Hans Rott. Within the space of some twelve minutes that make up this orchestral scherzo we had what sounded like embryonic Mahler: a clash of tonalities, gleaming brass fanfares, dance-like themes given to the upper strings, a piquancy of wind textures, Wagnerian horn calls and forest murmurs from the lower strings, a solo violin providing a descant and titanic punctuation from the timpani, with an aching sense of melancholy in the trio section. Rattle skilfully held everything together with a keen ear for the myriad colours in the score. But wait a moment! This was 1880, years before Mahler had written any of his symphonies. What we have in Rott’s First Symphony, but most especially in the Scherzo, is a series of pre-echoes of what was yet to come. The thematic anticipations of the Wunderhorn symphonies as well as nos. 5 and 7 are quite uncanny and call to mind Stravinsky’s famous observation that “lesser artists borrow, great artists steal”. Rott is one of the great musical might-have-beens whose ideas Mahler belatedly acknowledged in 1900: “He and I are like two fruits from the same tree.” What drove Rott, a neurotic and highly-strung individual, over the edge was being told by Brahms, whose voice carried considerable sway in the Habsburg capital, that he had no talent whatsoever. Four years after composing his E major symphony, Rott’s life came to an untimely end in a mental asylum.

Bruckner’s reference to his Sixth Symphony as being his “sauciest” was surely tongue-in-cheek: the superlative in German rhymes with and is a near homophone for the ordinal number. However, it is surely legitimate to disagree with the composer and see this A major work as the most enigmatic he ever wrote, in which more musical questions are asked than answered. This might explain why it has had a somewhat shadowy existence, boxed in between two neighbouring giants, much like Beethoven’s Fourth. All the more surprising, therefore, to see the work performed on two consecutive nights in London (the earlier performance in Cadogan Hall being with the Bruckner Orchester Linz).

Rattle, who has been slowly feeling his way around Bruckner’s sound-world, clearly takes Bruckner at his word. He conjured up a sense of jauntiness in the opening movement, the basic pulse quite fast and undermining the Maestoso marking, and with textures sunlit rather than dappled. What was commendable, however, was the care with which individual sections were balanced, not least the brass. Too often performances of Bruckner symphonies are ruined by raucous and ill-mannered playing: the brass are there to crown the overall textures, not to swamp them.

The Adagio is the longest movement and here Bruckner enters a no-man’s-land of tonal uncertainty. In these extended paragraphs, which remain dark and troubled, there are no easy answers, no great affirmation and no parting of the clouds. At its heart lies a funeral march that is almost Mahlerian in mood. It is arguably Bruckner’s most agnostic symphony, written during a period of recurring self-doubt. These elements found Rattle in fine form, down to the way in which the string lines were pared to almost nothing at the end, suggesting parallels with Mahler’s own Ninth Symphony when the last musical breaths are drawn and exhaled. Elsewhere there was evidence of what happens when Rattle strays too far from an overall grasp of the symphonic structure: he created beautiful sounds, lavishing much care on the string lines and drawing a surprising degree of warmth from his OAE players, and yet loving those lines of string polyphony a little too much.

The scherzo had a rugged quality, the playful nature of the movement being replaced with something else – doggedness – and the brass chorales blazed with a spirit of defiance. In the finale, right at the end, there was enough in reserve for the brass to fling their last A major chords at the orchestra with impressive power.